Raising Resilient Children

Issues this post seeks to address:

  • How does perfectionism contribute to rigidity and inhibit resilience in children?
  • What are some things parents can do to promote resilience in their children?

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When people learn that I’m a psychologist, they sometimes ask for advice about some personal issue. I’m almost always fine with this and am happy to help. Occasionally, though, they might ask for some “nugget of wisdom” that I’ve learned, which usually ends up as an incredibly broad, vague question. “What advice would you give about parenting kids?”

I find trying to answer these kinds of questions stressful. The best answers are all so obvious and commonly understood that it feels like a let down. Be supportive of your children, but also have boundaries. Duh. If I try to come up with something relatively unique, I run the risk of talking too “psychologically” to keep their interest. I try to find the sweet spot of sharing something insightful while avoiding having to go in too much depth. I think I do it well a good 10% of the time.

The request for parenting advice has come up enough that I’ve finally developed a go-to response that I feel good about. Whenever someone asks me for general parenting advice, I now tell them, “Teach your kids how to fail.”

I hope that no one has ever gotten the wrong end of the stick when I’ve said this. I’m not suggesting that your particular kid should get used to failing, since it’s going to happen all the time. What I am suggesting is that “failure” is inevitable. Depending on what lenses our children use to perceive these experiences, they will either respond by feeling inadequate and shutting down, or by learning from their mistakes and trying again.

The ability to respond to setbacks quickly and with renewed effort is called resilience. Resilience has been a popular topic in the field of mental health in recent years. There are obvious advantages to understanding how people “bounce back” from hardship, particularly relating to issues like depression, anxiety, trauma, managing stress, etc. If we can learn what makes some people deal with problems more easily than others, then we can use these factors to help people heal.

Resilience has ties to popular concepts like “grit,” “growth mindset,” and “willpower.” Whether these concepts point to different internal processes or the same one is anyone’s guess. They all seem to point to some personal trait or set of traits associated with being hardworking, tough, or just a generally Successful Person™.

Is resilience an attribute that can be taught or instilled in someone? Some research suggests that it’s possible. A study published in the journal Educational Psychologist in 2012 found that when students are taught that intellect is a quality that can be developed, they showed higher achievement scores than their peers. One question that we might ask, then, is what parents can do to instill this kind of resilience in our children.

One attribute that is inversely related to the development of resilience is perfectionism. That is, children who grow up with more perfectionist ideals will be less resilient in the face of failure. Some may see this as counterintuitive – wouldn’t a drive to be better be correlated with more toughness, more “stick-to-it-iveness?”

The problem with perfectionism is that it represents a high minimum standard for perceived adequacy. A perfectionist is only “good enough” when they meet the often-arbitrary metrics for self-valuation that they’ve adopted. And since these metrics are very rarely still met when the perfectionist encounters a setback or perceived failure, the failure is often internalized. The “failure” then becomes a reflection on the self, rather than an artifact of the context.

Perfectionism pushes the “good enough” bar up to a new personal best with every jump. Every effort has to be near perfect in order not to feel like a failure.

The key ingredient, then, that inhibits resilience in many perfectionists is shame. Shame suggests that the world is out-of-balance when failure occurs, and will only be right again when success is once again achieved. The problem with this worldview is that failure is so subjective. That’s why I’ve put the word “failure” in quotations a few times in this post – there’s no objective metric for it.

Perfectionists tend to be really good at identifying personal inadequacies, and finding things they’ve “failed” at. I’m often surprised at how adept some of the high-achieving, bright, accomplished young people I meet with are at feeling like a failure. Burdened under the weight of their shame, recovering from setbacks becomes a much more arduous process.

As parents, I think one of the greatest favors we can do for our children is to normalize their perceived failures. Maybe even to celebrate them. I’m reminded of the scene in Meet the Robinsons, where the Robinson family congratulates the protagonist after a spectacular fail. Doing so sends the message that it’s OK to expend effort, even when things don’t swing the way we thought they would. This idea allows the child to focus more on effort than results; growth rather than achievement;  process rather than outcome.

It’s easy as a parent to let our anxieties and insecurities about our children and their futures impact the way we interact with them. I’m not sure I’ve known many parents who celebrate their child’s failing grades. But we can try to be thoughtful about the messages we’re sending, often subconsciously, that teach our children about where their value comes from. Teaching our children how to fail can combat perfectionism and help them develop resilience. It’s hard to think of a gift that will pay off greater dividends than that.

References:

Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindsets that promote resilience: When students believe that personal characteristics can be developed. Educational psychologist, 47(4), 302-314.